Coronavirus and the Law: Students Suing Universities over Tuition Fees, Coronavirus Response
Continuing with our blog’s coverage of the latest legal news related to the spread of the Coronavirus, today we discuss a recent group of novel class action lawsuits filed by college students. As a result of the Coronavirus’s rapid spread, nearly all colleges and universities throughout the country have transitioned to online teaching methods. In response, a litany of student petitions surfaced asking for institutions to partially refund tuition, and in at least three cases so far, students have filed lawsuits seeking these refunds. Today, we outline and analyze these class action claims against Drexel University, Liberty University, and the University of Miami.
Students File Class Actions Demanding Tuition Refund
On April 8, 2020, students from both the University of Miami and Drexel University filed separate, but relatively identical, class action lawsuits against their respective universities. In fact, both lawsuits were filed in South Carolina federal court by the same law firm. These complaints also contain similar claims, as both assert counts of breach of contract and unjust enrichment.
The general theme of both cases is that the universities charged full tuition for the spring semester, but now that classes are being conducted remotely, students’ tuition costs covered services which are no longer available to the students. In particular, the case against the University of Miami states that students were required to a pay a number of mandatory fees for the semester, including the “Athletic Fee,” the “Wellness Center Fee,” and the “Student Health and Counseling Center Fees.” Now that the University’s campus is closed, students can no longer utilize these benefits.
While the complaint against the University of Miami does not specify an exact dollar amount for these fees, the case against Drexel University notes that students pay a mandatory $2,405 fee along with tuition, which covers similar physical amenities such as gyms, libraries, counseling centers, and more. Additionally, both cases claim that the universities failed to issue refunds for students’ room and board charges, and also did not take into account the benefits associated with a physical classroom education in comparison to an online education. According to the students, their universities failed to consider benefits such as physical instruction by professors, extracurricular activities, and hands-on learning opportunities that are now cancelled or significantly limited.
Liberty University Students Sue over Coronavirus Response
Conversely, an anonymous student at Liberty University also filed a lawsuit seeking a tuition refund, but took a slightly different approach due to the University’s unique Coronavirus policies. While the heavy majority of schools in the United States closed their doors due to Coronavirus, Liberty University and its President Jerry Falwell Jr. decided to keep the University open. In fact, as of mid-April, the University’s website maintains that it is still open “to students, employees, and those conducting University business.”
Due to Liberty University’s policy, “Student A,” the anonymous plaintiff, approached their complaint a bit differently. While Student A also seeks a refund on tuition and fees, they center their claims on President Falwell’s “open campus” policy and the University’s relaxed approach towards Coronavirus. Here, Student A claims that Liberty University’s reaction to the Coronavirus pandemic was “glacially slow,” and that the University effectively put students’ health at risk so that it could avoid refunding any fees. Specifically, the student argued that “the University’s statement that it is ‘open’ is an illusion being put forth to try to keep money that should be returned to students and their families.”
Similar to the cases filed against Drexel and Miami, this case outlines a significant list of fees collected by Liberty University which are no longer benefitting students. The plaintiff also pointed out that, even though the University is expected to receive approximately $15 million through the federal government’s stimulus package, the only benefit it plans to offer to students is a $1,000 credit towards room and board if the students decide to return in Fall 2020. Student A concludes that “Liberty University is, in a very real sense, profiting from the COVID-19 pandemic,” and therefore, the University breached its contract with students and became unjustly enriched.
The expectation for these Unique Class Action Claims
Taking these lawsuits as a whole, there are a few potential hurdles that all three class actions will likely have to face. Initially, at the motion to dismiss stage, the universities could attempt to challenge the plaintiffs’ standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, this principle requires plaintiffs to have suffered a “concrete and particularized injury” that is traceable to the defendant’s conduct. In these cases, the universities may try to quickly dismiss the cases on the basis that students did not suffer a concrete injury because their education continued throughout the semester.
More importantly, all three cases will surely face challenges at the class certification stage. The proposed class must satisfy numerous factors outlined in Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, such as numerosity, commonality, predominance, and typically. Put simply, these factors, along with others set forth in Rule 23, require members of the proposed class to have all suffered a sufficiently common injury that renders the class action to be a better form of litigation than individual cases. Here, given that students at these universities likely used different university amenities (such as some students utilizing room and board and meal plans while others did not), the universities are sure to attempt to fracture the classes on this basis.
Moving forward, our blog at Coffman Law will continue to keep readers updated on the latest legal trends and issues coming out the Coronavirus pandemic. We encourage our readers to stay safe during this unprecedented time. Additionally, if anyone is facing legal trouble as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak, do not hesitate to reach out and get a free consultation from the experienced litigators at Coffman Law.
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